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March 31, 2016

My Yoga Love Affair: Why I Stopped Sipping the Haterade & Started Drinking the Kool-aid.

Flickr/ASHCROFT54

My arms shake in Plank Pose. My thighs twitch during an endless High Lunge.

I curse my heels that can’t touch the ground while Downward Facing Dog-ing—and all the while I’m being verbally harassed by a white girl with dreads, named Sunflower.

“One breath, one movement!” She commands. “Breathe! Lengthen! Breathe!” As if I have a choice.

This is why I hate yoga.

The physical act of it is uncomfortable and difficult—I feel clumsy and weak. Yet, at the same time, it doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything productive for my body. The results of running and weight lifting are immediate. I don’t have the patience to figure out how yoga could be good for me.

The thoughts I have while I’m attempting various asanas leave me worse off than beforehand. The movements are straining, the teacher is grating, and everybody else in the room seems to think they’re on a higher plane. Half of the people are gleefully making horse sounds fluttering their lips, and the other half are moaning loudly, perhaps enjoying their exhales a wee bit much.

“I get it—you’re breathing deeply. I am proud of you,” quips the voice in my head.

I’ve held disparaging opinions about these type of people for years. The irritating, self-righteous way they talk about “their practice.” The way they treat spirituality as a trend. Their sense of entitlement to enlightenment just for doing cat-cows. The way they proclaim their allegiance to “living in the moment,” yet they sit on their mats texting right up until class begins. Their self-congratulatory pat on the back for faithfully attending what has become the church for our generation.

My ego has been on a yogi rampage for a long time…

Yet—fast forward one year—I have turned into one of those people.

I am officially addicted—craving it like I crave my daily organic, raw smoothies. I—Stephen Wickhem—am a born again evangelical yogi. How did I go from sipping the Haterade to drinking the Kool-aid? Pure evolution.

I’ve recently begun going to the gym more regularly and lifting weights, so I wanted to do an activity that would really be an effective stretch for my muscles. I knew yoga was excellent for this, and though I’d tried it many times throughout the years with poor results, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try again. When my friend mentioned a nearby donation-based studio, I was willing to give it another try.

Seeing as I am older and wiser than last time I attempted yoga, I thought perhaps my opinion would change—and change it did! My experience in this one class was unlike any I’d had with yoga before. My whole attitude and perspective on the practice shifted.

First of all, I loved the space–beautiful brick walls, large windows, hanging plants, no statues of Buddha or Ganesha or any other evidence of cultural appropriation in sight. I loved the people–unpretentious, chill, down-to-earth human beings who I could see myself being friends with—but above all, I loved the teacher.

Her name was Holly, and she infused the class with this perfect blend of fitness, inspiration, vulnerability and humor. Later I would find this balance of qualities consistent amongst all of the teachers there. Unlike so many yoga studios, they have respect and reverence for the practice, without taking it (or themselves) too seriously.

I still recall my favorite one liners:

“Stop making that face. It’s not that much of a struggle that you can’t smile.”

“Sometimes when people get into this pose, they think they need to be emotional. No. Just because you’re in Pigeon doesn’t mean you need to start thinking about your ex-boyfriend.”

“Guess what happens if you’re heels touch the ground in Down Dog? Nothing.”

One minute they’re making jokes and poking fun, and the next they’re sharing their personal stories of struggle and imparting true wisdom and life lessons. It’s a wonderful dichotomy and a microcosm for how we should strive to live our lives—with that balance of playfulness and depth.

The teaching is what made me view yoga differently and changed my perception, but it’s the practice itself I’m now obsessed with. It doesn’t matter who the teacher is or where I go, I always enjoy doing it. It’s a great work out—I sweat more doing yoga than I do lifting weights. Thanks to a combo of running, weights and yoga three to four times a week, I’m in the best shape of my life!

But there’s a much deeper aspect to yoga that I appreciate. It is a bridge between the physical body (the sensation of our skin, our bones, our muscles), the brain (our determination, discipline and self-talk) and the spirit (our awareness, our consciousness). Simply put—yoga is meditation in action. I know it’s been said before, but it bears repeating, because it’s something I didn’t understand—until I did. It’s not easy to articulate without direct experience, but I will go ahead and try.

Meditation in action means deliberate movement with simultaneous attention on the body and breath—a synchronization of the two. Noticing your inhale and exhale while being fully in your body. Feeling the way your limbs move, lengthen and build strength. When we’re in a pose, there’s nothing else to think about. We’re totally in it—hearing the sound of the instructor’s voice, focusing on the physical sensations taking place and moving with our breath.

I’ve always believed that the way you do one thing is the way you do all things, and yoga is the embodiment of this belief. Our level of consciousness on the mat reflects our consciousness off the mat.

One breath, one movement, indeed. Whether on the mat, in the workplace or at a restaurant—we can bring that mindfulness with us wherever we go. If we can learn to cultivate our presence in the studio, we will naturally carry that out into the world.

The way you do one thing is the way you do all things.

Reflecting my thought process then versus now is humbling. It’s a lesson in evolution, the possibility of growth and not being too proud to admit I was wrong. I take full responsibility for my own ego. I get it now—why people talk about yoga the way they talk about yoga. l understand for myself “one breath, one movement.” And all those other phrases that used to bother me so much—“Yoga adds years to your life and life to yours years” or “It’s not hard work, it’s heart work!”—now ring true for me.

I can’t help but laugh—the very thing I mocked, I have become. Last week I even “checked in” on Facebook to my yoga studio with a one-word caption: “Church.”

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Author: Stephen Wickhem

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Flickr/TINA RICE

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